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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-30 – Dr. Arthur I. Cyr – “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Miscalculation, Nuclear Risks, and the Human Element”

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-30 – Dr. Arthur I. Cyr – “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Miscalculation, Nuclear Risks, and the Human Element”

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    Nuclear weapons have vastly raised the stakes and potential costs of crisis, making leadership and related human qualities of judgment and temperament crucial. This podcast analyzes one exceptionally dangerous US-Soviet confrontation, which barely averted war. Military and policy professionals will see how understanding the perspectives, incentives, and limitations of opponents is important in every conflict—and vital when facing crisis situations like nuclear war.

    Read the article:

    Episode Transcript: “The Cuban Missiles Crisis: Miscalculation, Nuclear Risks, and the Human Dimension”
    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    (Prerecorded Decisive Point intro) Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guest and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Arthur I. Cyr, author of “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Miscalculation, Nuclear Risks, and the Human Dimension,” which was featured in the autumn 2022 issue of Parameters. Cyr has served as the vice president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and president of the Chicago World Trade Center (World Trade Center Chicago). He taught at the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and Carthage College and is the author of After the Cold War: American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia, published by New York University Press in 2000.

    Welcome to Decisive Point, Art. I’m glad you’re here.

    (Arthur I. Cyr)

    Well, thank you for your kind invitation and for the opportunity to do the article for Parameters.


    Of course. We’re excited to have you.

    Your article talks about the Cuban missile crisis. Give us some context, please. What makes this crisis distinct from others?


    It was particularly close—a particularly close call. It was particularly increasingly evident with the passage of years after the October 1962 confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. It was geographically close. We and our allies had put lots of weapons, including nuclear missiles, in Turkey and Italy, close to the Soviet Union. But this was only 90 miles away from the US, and the communist threat 90 miles away was a major theme in the legendary presidential campaign between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Kennedy, in effect, outflanked Nixon on that.


    Will you please briefly walk us through the highlights of the Cuban missile crisis?


    Yes. Cuba had become an increasingly intense focus in American politics. At the very beginning of the Kennedy administration, uh, the administration stumbled badly with the disastrous and total failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion—CIA effort to land anti-Castro . . . heavily armed anti-Castro exiles at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and launch an insurgency, which they confidently told the president would be successful.

    That, it’s clear now, not only fed controversy in the US, but encouraged Nikita Khrushchev to place the missiles in Cuba following a very steady buildup of conventional forces there.


    Let’s talk about some of the lessons learned. Some of these weren’t even evident for years. Can we talk about that? What were they?


    Yes, indeed. Well, the problem of perception and, especially, misperception of the other side, always a great and perhaps principal challenge in international relations, which is why diplomas . . . diplomacy is such an important and, also, difficult occupation—Cuba, Castro, the US, Kennedy, Soviet Union—that they’re very reckless. Nikita Khrushchev had very different perceptions of what would be accepted and what was possible in international relations. The Americans, interestingly enough, were obsessed with not Cuba, but Berlin, where it was . . . anything that happened in the world, including in Laos and Vietnam—anywhere, literally, was related to Berlin. And, in fact, the evidence is clear that after the announcement of the missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev and associates hoped to use that dramatic change in the strategic landscape to apply new pressure and successfully force the Western allies out of West Berlin, which was another island, metaphorically, surrounded by East Berlin, East Germany, and the heavy and very powerful Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.

    I hope that’s clear. But it made the stakes very high. But the basic lesson is how easy it is to misperceive what the other side is planning to do. Nobody around Kennedy, with the single exception of CIA Director John McCone—not a government professional, not an intelligence pro, but a Republican businessman—was brought in to succeed Allen Dulles (who’d been discredited), the longtime head of the CIA and was basically a fall guy for the Kennedy brothers after the Bay of Pigs disaster. With the single and very courageous exception of McCone, the Americans simply persuaded themselves the Soviets would never try to do this.


    How are some of these lessons still relevant today?


    Well, we still have a nuclear-armed world. I don’t believe. But it’s important to keep in mind what I just said about misperception. I think partly because of the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis and partly because nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings which finally brought a thankful end to World War II in the Pacific and the surrender of Japan—nuclear weapons are so horrific that they continue to operate as a deterrent on the other side. But, thanks in part to the Cuban missile crisis, we’re no longer so inclined to engage in wishful thinking, I believe, collectively and assume the other side is not going to act.

    And communication: Kennedy and Khrushchev, to their great credit, established the so-called “hotline,” which was not a cell phone, it was not a landline, it wasn’t even initially a satellite phone, but it was a very complicated telecommunication system, an old-fashioned, big, clunky teletype machine. One was placed in Moscow, and one was placed in Washington. And the two sides were able to communicate much more readily than before. Today, telecom is no longer a problem, but miscommunicating, misunderstanding what the other side is going to do and wants to do is as dangerous as ever.

    Roberta Wohlstetter (W-O-H-L-S-T-E-T-T-E-R) is the single, I think, most important analyst well worth reading. She did a classic book in 1962—Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision—analyzing and explaining the US intelligence failures regarding the Japanese surprise attack on our naval base on December 7th, 1941. She also did an article for the fine journal Foreign Affairs in 1965, applying the same lessons to the Cuban missile crisis. She’s extraordinarily durable.


    Thank you. Do you have any final thoughts for us before we part ways?


    We’re very much into quantitative analysis, and hard data and hard information is important in our military (quite rightly) from the start of warfare. But, certainly, the US Army and military services today give a tremendous amount of attention to data analysis. Our military is also quite valuable and fortunate in the sense that leadership is essential in academia, but also in government circles. I do believe—and I don’t think it’s just old age—I do believe that with the end of the Cold War, we’ve become more and more obsessed with what we like to do: analyze data. You see it in all walks of American life, including business. But leadership intuition, the human dimension, has never stopped being important, and it’s more important than ever before. (John F. Kennedy or) JFK looks better all the time. Whatever shortcomings may have been—and, obviously, his ineffectiveness early in his administration—he played a singular and decisive role in holding off nuclear war. The advisers he brought together when we first learned about the missiles in Cuba uniformly wanted to attack Cuba. We know now that there was some sense, especially on the part of Defense Secretary (Robert) McNamara, that the Soviets had some sort of short-range nuclear weapons in Cuba, but they had far more than Americans estimated at the time. And in a moment of insanity, Nikita Khrushchev had quite privately given one . . . his principal commander in Cuba the OK to use nuclear weapons without asking Moscow if the Americans invaded.

    The Soviet submarine—the B-59 under command of Valentin Savitsky—harassed by US surface ships dropping hand grenades and signaling depth charges, which the Soviets assumed were lethal, trying to force them to the surface, finally did so. American aircraft were busy shooting tracer bullets around the submarine. Savitsky ordered the torpedo tubes open, including one that held an atomic torpedo. He was going to destroy the American flotilla around him. He was gonna destroy his own submarine and launch a nuclear war. Vasily Arkhipov—by good fortune, a Soviet fleet staff officer happened to be on the submarine, and he literally physically prevented Savitsky from carrying out that order. Commander William Morgan, the captain of the US destroyer USS Cory, as described in the article, went out of his way to make sure that by, uh, searchlight signaling, Ensign Gary Slaughter apologized to the Soviets, who were, by that time, standing out on the deck of the surface submarine. We apologized. Commander Morgan brilliantly kept the atmosphere down. He kept telling his men “Let’s keep those Russian bastards happy. Let’s reassure them as much as we can.” Those courageous and very sane gentlemen literally prevented a nuclear war.

    Kennedy, at the top, crucial US and Soviet military people confronting one another deserve a lot of credit. It was far closer than anyone realized at the time, even though everyone knew it was a dangerous situation.


    I can’t even imagine. Thankful for clear heads, right? Calm demeanor.


    At that time, yes. More important than ever. And the more we go on after the Cold War without, thank God, a general war, I think the more easy it becomes—especially for intellectuals, I must say, but also some military people—to be very casual about the risks these kinds of weapons involved.

    I meant one final point without getting too personal. I was working at a supermarket after school and on weekends in October of 1962 in Los Angeles, California, my hometown, which was a prime target area. President Kennedy, the evening of October 22nd, made a public speech readily available on YouTube—and people should watch and listen to it—announcing the not attack, but quarantine, blockade of Cuba. When I showed up for work the next morning, Alexander Supermarket in Hollywood, California, was totally jammed with people. It wasn’t a riot. As far as we could tell, people paid for things. But, for the first time in my life, I really not only saw, but smelled, fear—a very curious, primordial kind of animal sense that arises when people and other creatures are terrified. It was an exhausting experience. It was a tiring, sort of monotonous job. But for the first time at work, I was completely exhausted. At the end, one poor woman—I took her out to an elegant Lincoln Continental. She had two shopping carts full of nothing but bottled water and toilet paper. It was really a very sad as well as scary time. We should all keep it in mind because, thankfully, Americans have not had to experience anything like that since. Very, very close, and don’t believe anyone, especially some professor who uses game theory and abstract conceptualization to argue that it never really was that dangerous.


    Oh, my goodness. Thank you for sharing that story. I appreciate your time so much and your insight. It was such a pleasure talking with you, Art. Thank you.


    Well, thank you, ma’am. Anytime. I’m always available to Parameters and the US Army War College.


    If you’d like to learn more about leadership and the human dimension as viewed through the Cuban missile crisis, you’ll find the article at Look for volume 52, issue 3.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and any other major podcast platform.



    Date Taken: 09.14.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:09
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74944
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109717782.mp3
    Length: 00:11:08
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 30
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

    Web Views: 20
    Downloads: 1
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